Wednesday, July 8, 2020


The Dodge Journey is the complete conundrum for me, especially in regard to the history of the third of America’s ‘Big Three’.


After more than 13 years, the Journey is now done.

It disappears from the production lines in August, but given the sluggish state of US car sales, they’ll probably be kickin’ around the showrooms for a while to come.


Despite my smartarse staging of this photo (right), when I drove the Journey in 2012, I was really impressed with what Chrysler had done with what began as a dog’s breakfast of platform sharing.


You’ll recall the ‘Merger of Equals’ in 1988 when Daimler Benz AG ‘acquired’ Chrysler. At the same time Daimler had almost swallowed up Mitsubishi Motors. 


What followed was a hurried assembly of platforms from the various companies to produce new models, which included a new Mercedes-Benz SUV (the ML) which was based on the then current Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Daimler-Chrysler AG entity lasted only nine years. In 2007 Daimler Benz AG sold its majority stake in Chrysler to Cerberus Capital, but before that even more platform sharing was happening. The Dodge Journey is a prime example of what happens when there is no coherent product plan. But, for once it worked out.


The Journey was designed by Ryan Nagode to sit on the platform of the GS Mitsubishi Lancer which was the basis for the Japanese company’s giant-killing EVO, or Evolution X, designed by my good friend Peter Arcadipane.


However, after the initial decision for the new Dodge crossover, the platform was twisted every which way and ended up also being the basis for a range of truly awful automobiles from Jeep and Chrysler. As this photo collage reveals, the platform took on various codes (JC, JS, MK and PK), all derived from what most Chrysler engineers called the least crappy platform, the Mitsubishi GS.

The cars included the Dodge Avenger, Caliber and Chrysler Sebring, plus the Jeep Patriot and Compass.


Chrysler wanted the Journey to be all things to all buyers, which of course creates fertile ground for compromise, where nobody gets what they want. Chrysler’s major focus was on value-for-money, and planned to undercut all its competitors on price. 


However, when you assemble all the components of a car, they all have an individual pricetag, and by the time you bundle them, you end up having to make some significant compromises when it comes to pricing.


The Journey’s biggest albatross was the ‘base’ car. To get the price down, the base model featured a 173hp (129kW), 2.4L four-cylinder petrol engine, which had a real hard time hauling the 1724kg crossover – and don’t even think of hitching up a trailer or a caravan. When that happened, your journey was accompanied by the distinctive aroma of a burning clutch plate!


Enough of the panning and ridicule. Inside the Dodge Journey, it was a design tour-de-force. The interior design team made up for most of the compromises by including such a wonderful array of thoughtful touches, storage innovations and practicality, that you should have bought it on that basis alone! 


To list just a few: the cushions of the front seats were front-hinged and when lifted up revealed a trimmed, secret compartment for valuables; the glovebox has a chilled compartment for drinks; there is a wide-angle mirror which you could pull down (to keep an eye on the passengers behind you); there was a standard in-car entertainment screen in the roof panel; and under the floor of the rear passenger area were two compartments large enough to qualify as an ice-box.


In addition to all this, the second and third row of seats were able to fold completely horizontal, providing a flat floor which allowed you to carry items up to 2.5m in length!


There was an expensive powertrain option, which was a 235hp (175kW) 3.5L V6 with a slick six-speed torque converter automatic. Nonetheless I think Chrysler's all-things-to-all-people car was an accomplished success.


After being dumped by Daimler in 2007 Chrysler hobbled along, borrowing money from any finance outlet willing to trust it. All of Chrysler's cars, Jeeps and trucks, people movers and crossovers were ageing rapidly, and once the FIAT acquisition occurred in 2014 there were some weird cars carrying FIAT and Lancia badges.

There was the ‘new’ Lancia Thema.

However, that turned out to be a re-badged Chrysler 300C. But, one of the more successful re-badgings was a version of the Dodge Journey, called the FIAT Freemont.

Only being available with a modest 2.5L diesel and 4-speed auto, the Freemont was nonetheless successful in Italy. It was a great family car.

Despite this burst of sunshine, Chrysler’s U.S. models became tarnished by sloppy assembly, cheap materials and shoddy workmanship along with poor paint durability.


I sincerely think the Journey was a high spot for Chrysler, but it’s one of too few. When it was the third of the Big Three, it competed equally against GM and Ford; but gradually as management hubris set in, and money ran short due to rapidly falling sales and loss of market share, Chrysler gradually lost its status as ‘BIG’, by any description.

To be fair, the company's American workforce were battered by its dramatically falling sales and status in the US market, and the 'takeover' by Daimler AG. This was a dispirited company, with badly-damaged workplace morale.


The now decrepit Italian-American car company looks like pulling off a major rescue of itself, by ‘merging’ (there’s that word again) with Groupe PSA. However, as I forecast when I wrote about the Peugeot-Citroen takeover, don’t expect to see many indigenous Chrysler models being retained.


The ‘new’ Chryslers that do appear will be built on PSA platforms, and I predict quite a few brand badges will just disappear. Really, all Groupe PSA wants from the deal is access to Chrysler’s US dealer networks, to save it the heavy cost of re-entering the American market, oh, and the Jeep brand!


So why am I writing about an ageing, and an about-to-be-discontinued Chrysler vehicle? For me it highlights the fact that occasionally in the car business you come across a vehicle that is more than the sum of its parts, and I think the Journey is such a car. A good car emerged from between the cracks.


The handling was predictable, the ride comfortable, the fuel economy was acceptable (providing you weren’t towing anything), the price was very competitive, and like all American-made trucks, it coped easily with Michigan winters!

All this from a company with two left feet which has produced some of most awful, retrograde products, and only barely survives thanks to Jeep, and RAM trucks.


I’m sure there are nights when FIAT Chairman John Elkann wakes from sleep, realising that the nightmare (acquiring Chrysler) is real, and has really done nothing to help the Italian car giant.

Maybe though he sleeps better now, knowing the Groupe PSA deal will go through, and at last FIAT may be able to assemble a range of well-specified and well-priced passenger vehicles, after a long period of serving up some truly pedestrian cars.

For example, the basic FCA Small Wide Platform (FIAT Tipo) was originally developed by GM in 2005!

Fiat Tipos, Brescia, 2017

I think the only bright lights were the FIAT 500, and the FIAT 124 sports car. That's a thin thread for an automotive colossus (?) to hang and survive on!


Tuesday, July 7, 2020


Given Aston Martin’s serious current debt; sagging car sales; massive investments and the fact that, as far as market analysts are concerned, it’s a company that’s ‘on the nose’ - automotive observers and commentators are throwing out some very wild ideas about how Aston Martin could be saved, and by whom.


One of the companies that‘s top of many lists is China’s Zhejiang Geely, currently saviour and owner of Volvo, Lotus and Proton.

However, it might be time for a reality check.

Its founder Li Shufu (left) is hailed as a god-like saviour to some famous brands.

Geely has done a great job rescuing Volvo, and helping Lotus climb back up the integrity ladder, but taking a major stake in Aston Martin, may be a step too far.


Car sales in China, the world’s largest car market, are tanking - and the competition to survive is getting stiffer.  The outlook is very grim.

While new car buyers accounted for two-thirds of sales over the last five years, the next five will likely be driven by replacement demand, according to a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. forecast.

Clockwise: Geely; Lynk & Co; Volvo; Proton; Lotus

Geely has done better through the downturn by maintaining a fine balance between production, sales and inventory. But it has had to slash sales targets, moving further away from its goal of selling 2 million vehicles by the end of 2020. While Lynk & Co sales volumes rose, net profit fell. Research and development costs continue to climb. 


However, Geely remains exposed to lower-tier cities in China, where demand has cratered. So, vanity buying is best saved for more upbeat times.


Investing in Aston Martin would be a cash sink, premium brand or not. Low as the price may be, a stake won’t add value to Li’s auto portfolio any time soon, given its debt burden, and a struggling core business. The Geely group should have other priorities, especially its finances. 


On the subject of debt, let’s take a close look at Geely. Debt at Zhejiang Geely totalled 136 billion yuan (USD$19 billion) at the end of September 2019, up from 92 billion yuan a year earlier.

Previous stake purchases (Volvo/Lotus/Proton) have come with leverage. To buy its stake in Daimler, for instance, Geely took to using complex derivatives. Its ratio of net debt to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization rose to 1.4 times in 2018, from 0.6 times in 2017, according to S&P Global Intelligence, because it took on a fair amount of debt to fund the acquisition of its 8% stake in Volvo AB. 


The credit rating agency estimated that the leverage ratio could rise further on lower sales and shrinking margins.


So despite Geely’s impressive aspirations, and the fine job it has done with the companies it now holds a stake in, I believe Geely is now finding itself in the same boat as a large number of global companies which have been hogging-out on cheap borrowings, at near record low interest rates.

Also, with Geely being mentioned in connection with helping to sustain Jaguar Land Rover, that would put increasing pressure on the Chinese giant.


Understanding debt and its relationship to success is not difficult. You borrow money (at low interest rates), based on a potential improvement in sales; cutting overheads; improving profit margins and efficient cash flow, based on increased sales. This is how a growing business expects these to be steps it takes, to improve its financial footprint. But everyone has to be reading from the same song sheet.


Screw up any one of those variables, and you’re in big trouble. Despite low interest rates on borrowings, maturing debt still has to be either paid off, or re-financed. If your cash flow suddenly sinks, and sales also fall, then paying off the debt, or re-financing becomes a huge impediment to survival – it’s that serious.

What the unitiated (in terms of global finance knowledge) should understand is that, taking these car companies as a giant group of potential borrowers, there is a limit to how much this group can borrow. There is neither a humungeous pot of money available, nor lenders with enough confidence to make loans in the current economic climate.

If the life lesson is, it's all about timing, then a shortage of funds to borrow couldn't come at a worse time for the car industry - which obviously tries to think years ahead.


As the impact of COVID19 changes the very nature of markets, it’s anyone’s guess as to how those companies are going to survive such a rapid and massive sales downturn.


Keeping everything moving in the right direction, like cash flow, and rolling along without impediment is getting harder and harder, as this virus stops factories, sales, and frustrates forecasting.

Number of cars sold worldwide 2010-2020

Of all the world’s global industries, the automotive industry may be in line for some of the biggest changes of all industries. It absolutely relies on replacement business – your car gets old; you replace it.

The cash keeps trickling down; but once the process hits a road block, it’s anyone’s guess how to restructure the centuries-old business model the automotive industry clings to.


Borrowing to keep it going is now a BIG gamble, and the reduction in the number of car companies which CAN remain afloat, is going to change the entire car business from designing, to making, to selling.


I’m glad I’m a spectator, not an investor.




NOTE: I relied on some data from Bloomberg to create a coherent explanation.

Sunday, July 5, 2020


It's official - India's Tata Group has reached out to Geely and BMW to discuss a rescue package for the premium British brands.

I have watched with alarm, as JLR invested in new models, restyles, facelifts, new powertrains, electric vehicles, a range of new tech innovations, and re-structuring its model ranges. Tata has poured huge amounts of money into all these activities, all predicated on continuing improvement in sales results, and stable profit margins.

Even before the impact of COVID-19, the global automotive business model was suffering from hiccups. Smaller companies began to find it harder and harder to compete - and even harder raising investment funds to execute their current business plans, let alone provide for all the new developments every car company will have to make as we head toward an uncertain future for conventional vehicles.

Throw in the pandemic and it's anyone's guess what survival will look like ten years from now.

And, before you start thinking about EVs, Fuel Cell Vehicles, Hybrids and autonomous vehicles, let's squash one theory right now.

Despite all the brave talk from politicians, bankers, venture capital fund managers, scientists and environmentalists the investments needed to fund this hazy, new high-tech future is simply not going to happen as soon as everyone expects, because the car industry will be too busy trying to save itself, and the millions of jobs that exist on the periphery of the industry.

All the really sensible people in the car business know that the Internal Combustion Engine has centuries of life ahead of it, because of very low continuing investments, improving fuel efficiency and lowering emissions. There is truly no need to rush into new tech until the future path becomes clearer.

Global car sales 2010-2020

It's more than likely that the consolidation of the industry will come first as brands are swallowed up. Some, like Jaguar Land Rover may not even survive that process. The British luxury companies may have done well since Tata Group acquired them, but in global sales terms it's still a small fish, the future plans it has revealed will require daunting levels of investment.

Get ready for some famous brands to simply disappear.

John Crawford


It’s my great pleasure to welcome my good friend Michael Taylor to DRIVING & LIFE. We have been friends for more than 30 years, but just as I was retiring from corporate life in the USA back to Queensland’s Gold Coast, Michael was preparing to leave Australia, and follow a dream. G’day Michael:


“I’ve been in Italy going on 14 years now, since January 2006. I landed in Modena, in the heart of supercar valley, with Maserati, Pagani, Ferrari and Lamborghini all within 30km.


"But I moved from there to Cernobbio, on Lake Como, about 200 metres from the Villa d’Este hotel, which is a fairly upmarket address. According to the stats there are 7000 official residents, but realistically closer to 3000, because people from Milan and southern Switzerland have houses here, which they only use in summer.

Michael and Sammy; Cernobbio from Lago di Como; Downtown Cernobbio; Villa d'Este; Cernobbio aerial

"We’re just one ferry stop from Como city, and Milan is 40 minutes away. Switzerland is over the hill. We hiked into it accidentally once.

The Taylor tribe - summer and winter on Lago di Como

"I was bored at home in Australia. It is a wonderful country but professionally limiting. If I was going to play the game, I figured, I might as well play in the main game, so that’s what I did.

"Italy was an easy choice because Germany was already covered by a couple of people writing in English; England was strewn with Aussie scribblers; and nobody cares about French cars. That left Italy."

The Michael Taylor I know is best described in Australian terms, as a 'larrakin', and now he lives life with love; for his three princesses, Cernobbio, Italy, and fast cars.

Welcome Michael.



Saturday, July 4, 2020


According to Google Maps, it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive, from sleepy Cernobbio to the throbbing heart of Maranello, home of Ferrari. However, despite most of the drive being on autostrada, it takes closer to three. That’s why I took a train, pumping along at 250km/h.


The invitation to drive a Ferrari is not to be dismissed. I’m included in a small group of some of Europe’s most skilled and respected automotive journalists – the only people other than Ferrari test drivers (and F1 racers) whom Ferrari trusts with their sports cars.


It’s raining when I arrive at Pista Fiorano today, and I don’t mean drizzle, I mean really serious rain. Will this detract from the experience? No. Everything is easier when the grip is limited and, besides, it was dry in the mountain passes.


Anyway, you always climb behind the wheel of a Ferrari with the intention of wringing whatever performance the conditions will allow. I have to find out what all those engineers have been doing for the past four years...

You slide down in to the Ferrari SF90 Stradale’s new carbon-fibre seats, examine its new digital dash, push the start button twice and... nothing.


Not a single intake roar, fuel-pump whir or exhaust whoomp enters the cabin.


Which is very strange for a Ferrari brand that made its name on start-up theatrics, as much as high-speed cornering prowess.


The SF90 Stradale is just that kind of intriguing machine, though. 


Four motors packed in to an evolutionary body style, capable of ripping to 200km/h in only 6.7 seconds and flying out to 340km/h, yet also capable of dawdling through city traffic as a silent, front-wheel drive EV, at least for 25km.


Yes, it’s a plug-in hybrid, but in a very Ferrari way, with one 162kW axial flux “pizza” motor jammed in between the upgraded twin-turbo V8 and another two 99kW e-motors up front – one for each wheel.


Even one motor costs $484,888 in the F8 Tributo, so three more for $846,888 starts to look reasonably priced.


It has a new lithium-ion battery, with 7.9kWh of capacity and 180kW of charging capacity, and the entire hybrid system adds 270kg.


But, it also adds far more than that. It adds capability that no Ferrari has ever had. It adds cornering stability that no rear-drive car could ever dream of.


Put together, the four motors deliver 1000 horsepower, limited only by the battery’s output, with the 574kW/800Nm V8 doing most of the heavy lifting.


Amazingly competent as it is at low speeds, it’s even more impressive being driven quickly.


In its Qualifying or Race modes, the SF90 Stradale’s V8 works all the time, mostly twisting the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, but also generating juice for the battery so those e-motors keep working.

The bipolar SF90 Stradale can cruise silently and serenely, then tear 100km/h to shreds in 2.5 seconds. It can ease past people without them noticing, or it can shatter the air at 8000rpm as it whips by.


The real genius is that the front e-motors supply instant torque vectoring, slowing or accelerating the front wheels to keep the car arcing impossibly quickly around corners. 


Its abilities from the turn-in point to the apex of a corner are mind boggling and it takes the most difficult exercise in car craft and makes it a doddle for anybody brave enough to take the leap.


That’s lucky, because that V8 howl delivers you in to braking points with furious rapidity and long straights feel like tiny driveways.


And the 'pizza' motor fills in any holes in the V8’s torque curve, so that the urgency never dims. Ever.


The steering is brilliant, the braking is monstrously strong and the ride comfort is impressive for a Ferrari with this much cornering prowess.

Yet it’s imperfect, with a yawning gap between the EV character of the car and the go-fast stages, and it’s always a shock when the V8 wakes up to charge the battery when you’re driving in the hybrid mode.


But it’s brilliant.




How much does the 2020 Ferrari SF90 Stradale cost?
Price: AUD$846,888
 (plus on-road costs)
Available: Now

Engine: 4.0-litre V8 / twin-turbo petrol 
Output: 574kW/800Nm
Transmission: eight-speed / dual-clutch automatic



Friday, June 19, 2020

MINNOW WITH MOXIE by John Crawford

That’s Mazda. While most of the automotive world is rushing to embrace electric cars and alternative powerplants, Mazda continues to pursue perfection of the internal combustion engine. 

Debuting the SkyActive-X petrol engine, Mazda appears determined to persevere with a technology most of the world’s largest carmakers seem prepared to abandon.

By global standards of measurement, Mazda is a ‘minnow’ – trailing behind Toyota, Nissan and Honda, but it remains a company driven by principles of engineering perfection. In spite of the push toward batteries, plug-ins and fuel cells, Mazda is sticking with technology it knows well, and has declared it will continue to develop.


In my mind, there is no car available today which reflects Mazda’s determination to be different, and ready to dominate the world of the auto enthusiast, which most other car makers are deserting, than the Mazda MX-5 (or if you’re reading this in the USA, the Miata).

No other carmaker is promoting sports cars, leaving the field open for Mazda to dominate the segment. And, in blunt terms let’s call the MX-5 the world’s only genuine sports car - reminiscent of the MG TC, MG-B or the Austin Healey Sprite.


The MX-5 strives for absolute lightness, a great power-to-weight ratio, no overweight extras, and fantastic performance for the money. It also handles brilliantly and delivers driving enjoyment in spades.

Having just driven the 2020 MX-5, I can sense that whilst the specifications differ little from last year’s car, the turn-in is sharper, there’s a crispness to the 2.0L engine and the six-speed manual is the definitive knife-through-butter experience.

The MX-5 is truly ‘superleggera’ (super-light) and doesn’t have anything it doesn’t need, to keep weight down - well maybe except for air conditioning, but then it would be impossible to sell this car to the pampered population of the US West Coast without aircon.


However, before we get carried away with a basic two-seater, let’s look at the rest of the range. This relatively small company has captured big chunks of the Crossover and SUV market with a range of brilliant models like the CX-3, CX-30 and the CX-5.


In addition, despite other carmakers turning away from passenger cars, there’s the Mazda 2, Mazda 3 and Mazda 6 – all extremely competent, high quality, and enjoyable to drive.

I have a number of friends who have deserted high-priced Europeans, for the quality and value of the lower-priced CX-3 and CX-5.

By the same token, Mazdas are not ‘cheap’ cars. Striving to build a reputation for quality, Mazda has pushed retail prices above most of its competition, but its aspiration for premium status is supported by extraordinary reliability, strong dealer support and excellent driving dynamics.

But, all is not rosy for Mazda. The company has its share of problems too. Despite the comparatively small size of the Australian market, it is nonetheless Mazda’s strongest. Mazda has suffered a big fall in sales globally, thanks to COVID19, but even before that it was carrying USD$4.32bn in interest-bearing debt, and has been forced to apply to Japan’s big banks for a fund raising totalling USD$2.93bn.


This deteriorating sales position has forced the closure of Mazda’s Japanese factories, in order to sell-out built stock.


Global sales have been steadily tracking down, and in the USA sales have fallen almost 42%, with its passenger cars down by double digits. However, one bright spot are strong MX-5 sales.

Mazda’s Japanese management says it’s concerned, but emphasises it is in a strong position to recover. Let’s hope so.

I think Mazda is a company to be admired for its focus and determination on continually improving its ICE powertrains, including the SkyActiv-X engine, and improving quality and refinement.

In the automotive world I think Mazda is a standout.

John Crawford

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

10,000 HOURS & A MILLION BUCKS GETS YOU THIS! by John Crawford

I’m not big into hot rods and the American muscle car scene, but I know quality when I see it – and this remake of a 1937 Ford coupe is the bee’s knees. The craftsmanship is awesome!


Also, this is not from some hyper-expensive custom shop on the West Coast. Most of the work you see here occurred in the mid-West, which just shows you what a surprising place the USA is. You get pockets of talent and outstanding skill sets all over the place.

The car is now owned by Ryan Thomas from Delano, Minnesota. The custom job began with the first owner, Boyd Coddington, at Tucci Hot Roads in Marcy, New York.

Coddington had given Dave Tucci free reign to create something ‘special’. Sadly, he passed away before the job was completed, when Ryan Thomas bought the car. Tucci had done a lot of the early fabrication, but Thomas took it back home to Mike Jensen of Mike’s Auto Restoration and Customizing.


Tucci began with an impressive list of tasks –  He started by wedge channelling the body to get an aggressive hot rod rake. The headlights have been eliminated from the moulded fenders, replaced by Kawasaki Ninja ZX-9R headlights integrated into the custom Alumicraft aluminium grille.


The handmade hood top extends downward to the grille. The top was chopped and completely re-proportioned, with the B-pillars removed, a cut-down Saab 900 windshield flush fit in place, and the rear laid forward. The doors were reshaped, and the rear fenders were extended around the rear of the body to where the dual exhaust ports exit.

The most ingenious technical detail on the car must be the invisible door hinges.

Ryan refers to them as pocket hinges. The design allows the front edge of the flush doors to pivot into the body as they open. It's remarkable engineering that has to be seen to fully appreciate.


The wildly redesigned body was mounted on a Fatman Fabrications chassis. In order to achieve that pavement-scraping stance, the frame rails were Z'd in the front (?), and kicked up in the rear. A Mustang II style independent front suspension with 2-inch dropped spindles, and a four-link rear were custom built by Tucci. RideTech ShockWaves are controlled by an AccuAir e-Level air management system.


As you can see this is no ordinary custom job. This is automotive art, both the visual perspective and the engineering.


The coupe's fenders are filled in high-tech fashion with big billet wheels from Colorado Customs, machined to follow a design provided by Dave Tucci and Ryan. Pirelli 215- and 295-series P Zero Nero tires were mounted on 17x8 and 20x10 wheels. The six-piston Wilwood brakes feature 10- and 12-inch front and rear rotors.


Prestige Motorsports in Concord, North Carolina, built the Ford 351W engine with Air Flow Research cylinder heads and high-performance aftermarket internals. The custom engine cover fits with the 1937 Ford's classic flowing lines.

The stacks of the Borla injection system and the custom finned valve covers add a traditional rod flavour. The 550-horsepower Ford engine is adapted to a GM 700R4 4-speed transmission


The interior is another example of imaginative high-tech style. Hix Design in Norman, Oklahoma, hand built the contemporary bucket seats and upholstered them - along with door panels and trunk. The floor is covered with leather and aluminium panels instead of carpet.

The custom dash includes milled bullet-shaped gauge pods and the hanging shifter ball was a Dave Tucci addition that adds a 1950s vision-of-the-future appearance.

This car has won a swag of awards, and is a tribute to the Hot Rodders’ imagination and craftsmanship.

As I said, it may not be your thing, but it's beautiful work, by thorough professionals - who can take a bow.

John Crawford